In partnership with Clydesdale Bank
WIND the clock back to 2008 and the global banking system was on the edge of disaster. Governments were bailing out lenders and the world’s central bankers were taking co-ordinated action to prop up the financial system.
That the thrusting executives responsible for the near collapse were, to a man, male begs an obvious question. Would the financial crisis have happened if the world’s biggest banks were run by women?
Debbie Crosbie laughs, considers her words and, perhaps speaking on behalf of female banking executives everywhere, says: “I don’t know if I can offer you a theory that we would have prevented the financial crisis. What is true is that the more diversity and balance you have in teams, the better teams perform.”
Crosbie, 45, is chief operating officer of CYBG, the former National Australia Bank Group subsidiary that was de-merged and floated on the London Stock Exchange in February. The newly-independent business owns Clydesdale Bank and its sister brand, Yorkshire Bank.
“Could there be more balance and diversity in larger organisations?” asks Crosbie. “Absolutely. I was reading that in the top 350 companies, only 10 per cent of females are in top executive positions. It is well proven that people who have the right consideration to diversity and balance get better results in the long term.”
Different people with different backgrounds from either gender come at problems from different perspectives, argues Crosbie. “What that promotes is more careful thought and a better outcome all round.
“I often have experienced where too many people from too similar backgrounds rush to the answer that is not often the most customer-focused answer and not the right answer for the long term. I think having that mix is a good thing.”
Crosbie maintains that her company has a good track record in assembling diverse teams. The UK operations were led by Lynne Peacock from 2004 to 2011, one of the only female banking chief executives at the time.
“You have to be committed about being serious, about being open to new ideas,” adds Crosbie.
“It is too comfortable for leaders to have their own preconceived notions reinforced and it is much braver for a leader to look for people who are different, who have different views from you and who will challenge you.”
Crosbie has differing views on the need for quotas. Nobody would want to find themselves in a job because they were making up numbers, she says. But she believes that targets could be useful for raising awareness of the benefits of having a more diverse team.
Crosbie is adamant that organisations that want to be more attractive to female talent must be flexible. She says: “I have a great story there. I was the first executive that this bank has allowed to work part time.
“I found myself pregnant and I was an executive and did what all female executives did then – I was in the bank until the day before I gave birth. I got the opportunity to return pretty quick to work and the reason I was able to do that was because I was offered the chance to come back three days a week in the same executive position.”
She worked part time until her daughter, now 13, went to school. Crosbie says: “I think you can make it work as long as the people who are about you are committed to making it work with you.
“If you have a situation where everybody is keen to demonstrate it is not workable, then it won’t work. There is a big obligation on the individual to be as realistic as the organisation.
“For example, I have great family support. My childcare worked really well for the days I was at work and I was realistic about what I could and could not do. As long as you are realistic about that, you are open and your colleagues are supportive, I don’t see why it can’t work.”
She agrees that there must be a cost to the economy when talented female employees leave the workforce to become mothers. “You see so many females doing so well and then they tail off,” she says.
“The only thing I would be a little careful about is a lot of people make those decisions consciously. What I chose to do isn’t for everyone and you have to accept that some people will choose to do different things.”
Born and raised in Glasgow, Crosbie’s father was an engineer and her mother was a care worker. They instilled in her the value of hard work.
She was an ambitious, if not entirely organised, teenager. Looking back on her 18-year-old self, she says she would be surprised to learn how disciplined, punctual and tidy she has become.
After studying business law and industrial relations at Strathclyde University, she joined Prudential as a graduate trainee and worked in the City of London. She moved to Clydesdale Bank – where she opened her first bank account at the age of 13 – as a project manager in 1997.
Crosbie progressed through the ranks and rose to become chief information officer before taking a seat on the main board in 2013.
She served as acting chief executive following the departure of Peacock’s successor, David Thorburn, and was in the top seat in April 2015 when the Financial Conduct Authority hit the lender with a record £20 million fine for mis-selling and providing false information to the City regulator.
“I wouldn’t think about that as taking the flak,” Crosbie maintains. “I would think about that as I got the chance to put it right. Everybody in an organisation whether you are new, whether you are old, has to take responsibility for those things. We have hopefully put that right now. We are moving on and it is all about making sure people see the evidence that not only are we putting past mistakes right but we are really listening to customers for our future.”
The best advice she has ever received is not to take herself too seriously – although serious during much of the interview, she does make a couple of off-the-cuff jokes.
Her choice of reading material also keeps her grounded: walking through the arrivals terminal at Leeds Bradford airport recently, she bumped into a friend who remarked on Crosbie’s choice of reading material – under one arm was a copy of the Financial Times, while Hello! magazine was tucked under the other.
“I do a lot of very disciplined and focused reading during the week for my work so what I tend to enjoy is a whole range of romantic novels,” Crosbie explains.
Although she may have heeded the advice about not taking herself too seriously, Crosbie doesn’t single out a sole mentor during her career.
“Every single person I have worked for – many of them I am still in touch with today – they have taught me something and I have learned something about the way I am,” she says.
“The new chief executive David Duffy is a fantastic example. He has a whole different set of experiences and I have learned another whole stack of things from him in the last six months.”
Duffy joined Clydesdale and Yorkshire last June after turning around nationalised lender Allied Irish Banks. Crosbie says she has learned from him “the power of compelling storytelling”.
“He is a great motivator and the staff have gained confidence from the way that he has explained things through storytelling and making it real for people,” she says. “He has renewed confidence and I see the impact that has on staff.”
CYBG, which is a constituent of the FTSE 250 index, has set aside £1.7 billion to deal with legacy conduct issues and has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in new technology and refurbishing key branches.
Crosbie believes its potential is huge as a standalone entity. “We have got a great balance sheet,” she says. “There has been a huge amount of effort in the past three years in preparing Clydesdale for the journey.
“We have a great set of loyal customers. We have a deposit base that would be the envy of all the other challengers. We are different because we are full service.
“We have all the ingredients that a lot of our competitor challenger banks would be very jealous of. We have a great motivated set of people who see this as such a fantastic opportunity.”
At weekends, Crosbie loves to spend time with her family. Her husband runs his own business and is both a great support and a great challenge, she says. “He has lots of good ideas of what a good bank for small businesses should be like, so it has actually been really helpful.”
A SHORT HISTORY OF CLYDESDALE BANK
1838 The first branch of Clydesdale Bank is opened on Miller Street, Glasgow by James Lumsden and a group of his fellow Glasgow merchants.
1839 Rag merchant Margaret Gemmel becomes one of the first women to take out a loan, borrowing £100 to grow her business.
1859 Yorkshire Bank is founded in Halifax by Colonel Edward Akroyd.
1874 Clydesdale Bank moves into its current head office at St Vincent Place, Glasgow.
1877 The first branch in London opens.
1899 The first “adding machine” – a forerunner to the modern calculator – is introduced into branches.
1915 During the First World War, women start to take over many of the jobs previously reserved for men.
1920 Clydesdale Bank is taken over by Midland Bank.
1923 Midland Bank takes over North of Scotland Bank.
1929 The first night safe is introduced, at Clydesdale’s Sauchiehall Street branch in Glasgow.
1948 Clydesdale becomes the first bank to introduce a mobile branch, with vans travelling to remote areas.
1950 Clydesdale Bank merges with fellow Midland Bank subsidiary North of Scotland Bank.
1970 The first cash machine is installed.
1971 Portraits of famous Scots are first introduced on to banknotes.
1987 National Australia Bank buys Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank in 1990.
1997 Dundee missionary Mary Slessor, inset, becomes the first woman to appear on a Scottish banknote, replacing David Livingstone on the £10 note.
2015 Debbie Crosbie becomes the first woman to sign a Scottish banknote.
2016 CYBG de-merges from National Australia Bank and floats on the London Stock Exchange.